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Old 03-07-09, 06:06 PM   #1
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Russia seeks to join cycling elite with Katusha's firepower

Going to any Pro EU races this summer. Should your favorite pro be, Robbie McEwen of the Katusha Team. Well, you'll be rooting for Russian PM Putty's boys.. What the heck.. McEwen says a translation of the word Katusha means, 'Stalin 's organ.' ??... Be pleased they don't show Stalin's cannon on the Katusha jersey. .

PARIS: Before the bubble burst last autumn and the price of a barrel of crude oil fell from above $150 to the vicinity of $40, Russia was eager to demonstrate its newfound wealth in many areas, political and otherwise. Why not even in bicycle racing? The name of the new team from Russia says it all: Katusha.

Generally, bicycle teams are named for their sponsors - the Caisse d'Épargne bank, the Quick Step floor manufacturers, the Cofidis telephone credit company - because for the millions of euros it invests, the sponsor wants publicity.

Let Alejandro Valverde win a classic, the reasoning goes, and depositors will storm Caisse d'Épargne because they have seen the name on the jersey that flashed first across the finish line. Need a new kitchen floor? Perhaps the sight of Tom Boonen as the Paris-Roubaix victor will lead the customer to Quick Step.

Not even a winner is needed. Riders will often go on a long (and invariably doomed) breakaway, especially in the hours when a race is being televised, "to show the jersey," as they put it - to generate business for their sponsor.

Sometimes the sponsor does not even have a business. Some decades ago, a team based in Italy was nominally sponsored by the Russian lottery, as the Lotto team was bankrolled by the Belgian lottery and the Français des Jeux team by the French lottery.

But there was no Russian lottery then. The sponsor was widely rumored to be laundering money through the sport.

So, what to make of the Katusha team? What is it selling?

"It's just a name. It means something to the Russians," explained Robbie McEwen, the crack Australian sprinter who was a major hire when the team was put together last year.

Indeed it means something to Russians. Katusha, also spelled in transliteration from Cyrillic as Katyusha, is a famed World War II artillery weapon, known as Stalin's organ when it repulsed German troops at the siege of Stalingrad by firing multiple rockets in one burst. It was still seeing service in Afghanistan decades later, as Soviet troops used it against the Taliban and then, once the weapon was captured, by the Taliban against Soviet troops.

Got all that? Lots of firepower, exceedingly Russian. In addition, the team's godfather is Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, also a soccer and judo aficionado, who let it be known that he felt Russia deserved a first-rate bicycle team.

The country already had a second-rate team, Tinkoff Credit Systems, owned by a beer entrepreneur, Oleg Tinkov. Accepting an offer via Putin that few oligarchs dare refuse, he closed up shop and transferred many of his riders to Katusha.

The new sponsors include Gazprom, the natural gas behemoth; Itera, another major gas distributor, and what McEwen identified as a Russian news magazine with the snappy title of Gross Domestic Product.

"They're state organizations," McEwen continued in a recent telephone interview from his home in Belgium. "It's sort of like Astana."

Astana, another rare team without a sponsor looking to move its goods, employs star riders like Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador.

Funded in Kazakhstan, nominally based in Luxembourg and directed from Spain, Astana is a triumph of globalization. The team, named for Kazakhstan's capital, came into being three years ago when the star Kazakh cyclist Alexandre Vinokourov appealed to his homeland to build a roster around him for the 2007 Tour de France. Five corporations stepped up, prodded by the head of the country's cycling federation, who, like Putin, also happened to be the prime minister.

But Vinokourov was convicted of doping during that Tour and is now suspended. Astana, however, remains a powerhouse. Which, McEwen said, is also Katusha's goal.

"We've got some really strong guys," he said. "Our aim is to win races, and so far we've won eight" in the young season. Two of those are to McEwen's credit, the Tour of Majorca and the Tour Down Under.

Money seems not to be a problem for the Russian team, despite the global economic meltdown. Katusha has an initial budget from its main sponsors of €15 million, or nearly $20 million, and an overall budget of €30 million. That puts it at the head of the field.

The team is part of what is called the Russian Global Cycling Project, which aims to develop the sport in the country. The overall budget will also fund a social project dedicated to schools and young athletesand a planned Tour of Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympics are scheduled.

Of the 27 riders employed by the team, a handful are Italian, Spanish and Belgian. Fourteen are Russians, including eight of nine holdovers from Tinkoff Credit. The squad will be split in two this month, with some participating in the Paris-Nice race that starts Sunday and the rest in the Tirreno-Adriatico race in Italy.

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Last edited by cyclezealot; 03-07-09 at 06:10 PM.
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Old 03-07-09, 08:43 PM   #2
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Nice to see Samuel Abt is still doing cycling news for International Herald Tribune. I thought he had retired.
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